Days of Wonder

28 05 2021

Films containing familiar sights and sounds of the past have a wonderful effect of evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Such was the case when I was provided with the opportunity to view a selection digitised 8mm home movies from the 1960s and 1970s that have been deposited in the National Archives of Singapore with a view to putting together segments of them in preparation for last Thursday’s “Archives Invites” online session “Days of Wonder: Fun and Leisure in 1960s and 1970s Singapore“. The session involved the screening of two videos, each containing scenes of the Singapore I was familiar with as a child, with a focus on sites, attractions and leisure activities that were popular among Singaporeans.

Fun for me in the late 1960s.

Among the activities that I put a spotlight on in the videos were those that took place by the coastal areas, which included scenes of Changi Beach – an extremely popular spot for picnics and dips in the sea at high tide – complete with kelongs in the near distance. Changi Beach, a regular destination for picnics right out the boot of the car (we could once drive right up to the beach), was where I first took a dip in the sea. The beach and the long sandy coastline that ran all the way towards Bedok, featured in many weekend outings and holidays through much of my childhood.

Ayer Gemuroh



It was the same for many in my generation. Changi Beach was often the place to chill out at during the weekend, especially when the timing of the high tide was favourable, which a quick check on tide tables published daily in the newspapers, could confirm. A friend of mine recounted how she looked forward to trips to Changi on the back of a borrowed lorry with the extended family whenever the timing of the tide was good. Pots of chicken curry and loafs of the local version of the baguette would also accompany the . If you were fortunate to have come with a car, there was also the option of driving right up to the beach and parking right under a shady tree to have your picnic right out of the car’s boot. Seeing cars with their wheels stuck in the sand was a pretty common sight because of this. And, if the chicken curry ran out or if one had come without food, there were several beachside cafés that one could visit. There was also the option of waiting for the fish and chips van, and the various itinerant food vendors that also visited the beach throughout the day such as the vadai man, the kacang putih man and the ice-cream vendors.

A small part of the segment on the coast, involved a holiday, taken locally by the sea – as was the fashion back in days when most of us could not afford to take a trip abroad. For me holidays involved the various government holiday facilities along the Tanah Merah coast, at long lost places with names like Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuroh. A question that was put to me during the Q&A session was what do I miss most of those days. Mata Ikan, the Tanah Merah coast, and also how we seemed to have unlimited access to much of the length of Singapore’s coast, is probably what I miss most. Those were wonderful times for me, walking by the beach and along stretches of seawalls, poking my nose into the numerous pillboxes that lined the coast (boy, did they smell!), wading out when the tide went out, often as far as the kelongs were planted. The coastal regions are much more protected these days and in many parts, blocked off from the public.

Beside my interactions with the Tanah Merah coast, there were many other places in SIngapore that left an impression. I remember how places would come alive by night, as the scenes of an Orchard Road and Guillemard Circus illuminated by neon advertising boards seen in the videos show. Singapore had such a wonderful glow by night with the numerous fountains – many planted on the major roundabouts, also illuminated by night, and the occasional float parades and light-ups during National Day, often adding to the night lights. Adding to the lively scene by night were what would be termed as “pop-up” food centres. Several open-air car parks, such as the famous one on Orchard Road where Orchard Central, transformed themselves into places to indulge in some of the best hawker fare that could be found in Singapore.

The car park at Orchard Road that transformed into a hawker fare paradise by night (Paul Piollet Collection, National Archives of Singapore)



The one at Orchard Road, dubbed “Glutton’s Square” to provide it with greater tourism appeal, was an assault (in a pleasant way) on four of the five the senses. Evening time brought with it the disorderly rush of pushcarts, all of which would somehow be lined up in neat rows in double quick time. Lit by kerosene lamps in the dark, each contributed to the smoke that filled the air together with an unimaginable array of aromas. The sounds of the ladles scraping the bottoms of woks added to the atmosphere. Besides Orchard Road, there were also carparks at Prince Edward Road opposite the Singapore Polytechnic and the one in front of the railway station at which hawkers similarly gathered by night.

Among the other scenes were those of Orchard Road, which was in the 1960s, a place to perhaps shop for cars, to visit the western style supermarkets, which were uncommon then, and perhaps C K Tang. C K Tang, a pioneering departmental store on Orchard Road, was then housed in its rather iconic Chinese-roofed building and right nearby was Champion Motors on which Lucky Plaza now stands, Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket and Orchard Motors. The conversion of Orchard Motors into The Orchard – a shopping centre at which the infamous Tivoli Coffee House was located, possibly marked the beginning of the end for Orchard Road’s motoring days. There are perhaps two reminders left of those days, in the form of Liat Towers – built as a Mercedes Benz showroom and headquarters, and the delightful sunburst topped former Malayan Motors 1920s showroom that can be found opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station.

The former Malayan Motors showroom seen in 1984 (courtesy of Henry Cordeiro).

Another of my favourite urban sites was Change Alley, which many locals – my grandmother included – seem to pronounce as something that sounded like “Chin-Charlie”. It was such a joy to wander through the alley, which in the late 1960s was filled with the sounds of the chorus of laughing bags being set off. The alley, which also provided correspondence between Collyer Quay and Raffles Place, was described by the BBC’s Alan Whicker in a 1959 newsreel as being “perhaps the most famous hundred yards in Southeast Asia”, a hundred yards of alley where one risked being “attacked in the pocket book”.

Whicker’s World with the BBC’s Alan Whicker wandering through Change Alley in 1959.

During the rather lively Q&A session at the end of the Archives Invites session, I believe that in view of the limited time we had, a number of questions posed went unanswered. Should you have been in that audience, and did not receive answers to the questions you may have posed, or have questions to which I was not able to adequately answer, you may leave them as comments to this post. I will try answering them as best as I can.





The revamped Changi Chapel and Museum – a quick walkthrough

18 05 2021

This walkthrough follows on to my previous post on the revamped Changi Chapel and Museum, which will reopen to the public tomorrow (19 May 2021).


Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




More on …

The museum: The Refreshingly Revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

Changi and its history: History Misunderstood: Changi Point

Selarang Barracks: A Changi Well Hidden from Sight

Roberts Barracks and the Changi Murals: A Light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals


A quick 15-minute walkthrough





The refreshingly revamped Changi Chapel and Museum

12 05 2021

Booking of visits slots to Changi Chapel and Museum:

https://nhb.vouch.sg/ccm




Located close to Changi Prison and in the Changi area where tens of thousands of Allied Prisoners-of-War (POWs) and civilians were held captive during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) is a place to remember the experiences of those held and a site of pilgrimage for the families of those held captive. Closed for a huge revamp since 2018, CCM will reopen on 19 May 2021 with a with a refreshingly new feel, a new logo, and offer an experience that will be a lot more immersive.

The new look Changi Chapel and Museum – a huge improvement from its previous incarnation. The visitor services area, which spots a new look logo, with the CCM monogram shaped like a POW chapel. The logo is also designed to resemble prison bars.

For those held in Changi, the period of captivity, was marked by immense suffering and pain, and for some, death. Disease, malnutrition and the inhumane and overcrowded conditions under which both POWs and civilian internees were subjected to, contributed to this. In all that adversity, there are also many stories of resilience and resourcefulness, of hope, and ultimately, of survival. Some of these stories have been brought out by CCM through a combination of artefacts, personal accounts and through the use of multimedia. On display are 114 artefacts, and in them the individual stories of hope and resilience. Of the 114, 82 are newly acquired or loaned. These new artefacts also include 37 that have been obtained through donations or loans from the public, including several that have very generously come from the families of former internees.

A morse code transmitting device hidden in a matchbox, which shows the ingenuity of prisoners held in Changi.

The revamped museum features eight exhibition zones, as compared to five in the CCM’s previous incarnation as the Changi Museum. Some of the highlights found within these eight zones are given below. Another highlight of the museum is the replica chapel featuring the Changi Cross. The replica chapel, representative of the various chapels of captivity and modelled after St George’s Church, was constructed in 1988 and was originally on the grounds of Changi Prison. This was moved to the present site in 2001. Made from the casing of a 4.5” howitzer shell and strips of brass from camp workshops, the Changi Cross was a feat of the POWs’ resourcefulness and ingenuity. Designed by Reverend Eric Cordingly, it was made by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden with Sapper Tim Hemmings using a sharpened steel umbrella spike to engrave the badges of the four regiments making up the congregation of St George’s POW Church. The cross has been loaned on a permanent basis to Changi Chapel and Museum by Reverend Cordingly’s family.

The Replica Chapel.

Opening and Admission

CCM will open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (Last Admission is at 5 pm).

Admission to CCM will be free for all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

Tourists and Foreign Residents will be charged $8 for adults and $5 for students, and Special Access. Children 6 years and below enjoy free entry. and above senior citizens (60 years and above). Visitors will enjoy $2 off admission with a valid ticket stub from the National Museum of Singapore. There is also a family package of $24 for a family of 5 with a maximum of 3 adults.

For the period of the opening from 19 to 30 May 2021 when all visitors will enjoy free entry.


Changi Chapel and Museum Opening Weekend (22 and 23 May 2021)

Priority Admission with Pre-booked Timeslots


Due to crowd regulation for safe-distancing, visitors are advised to pre-book their admission by timeslots (930am, 1130am, 130pm and 330pm) for opening weekend on 22 and 23 May.

Visitors with pre-booked admission slots will be given priority admission to the museum, but will however be required to visit during the selected time. Timeslots can be booked for up to a maximum of 5 person. Booking opens on 17 May 2021, 12 noon.

Crowd levels can be check via the museum website or chatbot before their visit and those without pre-booked entry timeslots may be required to return at a later time.

Do note that there is limited paid parking lots available at the Changi Chapel and Museum and there is also no public parking available in the vicinity. As such, visitors will be advised to take public transport or private car hire to the museum.

Opening Weekend Programmes include guided tours of the gallery and a recorded orchestral performance based on the experiences of prisoners of war for which pre- registration is required.
Registration for Opening Weekend programmes will also allow priority admission to the museum and there is not need to further pre-book admission by timeslots separately. Registration of programmes will begin on 17 May.

More information is available on the opening weekend programmes and registration details, please visit www.changichapelmuseum.gov.sg and CCM’sFacebook and Instagram pages.


The Eight Zones

Zone 1: Changi Fortress

The first zone, Changi Fortress, provides some context for how Changi became a place of internment in tracing how Changi developed from an area of swamp and forest, into a place for leisure and then into a military cantonment, setting the scene for the role that Changi played during the war. Here the visitor will be greeted by a projection that sets the context for the museum’s narrative as well as maps, and photographs related to Changi’s early days.

Changi Fortress.
The Changi Fortress zone, where visitors will encounter a projection show that sets the context of the museum’s narrative.
A view of a forested Changi in 1869 – a print View in Changi that was published in Skizzen aus Singapur und Djohor (Sketches of Singapore and Johore) by Austrian diplomat and naturalist Eugen von Ransonnet.

Zone 2: Fallen Fortress

The next zone, Fallen Fortress, looks at the Fall of Singapore and its aftermath. Among the artefacts of interest is a well preserved chronometer from the HMS Bulan, a cargo ship that was involved in the evacuation. It left Singapore on 11 February 1942 with a load of civilian evacuees, arriving safely in Batavia after steaming for four days during which time it was attacked.

Fallen Fortress
Chronometer from the HMS Bulan

Zone 3: The Interned

The third zone looks a the stories of the men, women and children who were interned. Some 48,000 of whom were marched to Changi in the days after the surrender with the civilians interned in Changi Prison and the troops in various camps in the area.

Among the artefacts of note is a 1941 Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, a troopship carrying Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps, provides a sense of how blissfully unaware and unprepared the troops arriving in Singapore were for the ordeal that was to follow. Also of interest is signed shirt with some 30 names written on it, 22 of whom were known to have survived the war. Found on the shirt is an attempt to document what went on, such a an incident involving Pte Lewer’s fall into a sewer.

The display of artefacts in the third zone.
A Christmas dinner menu from the USS Joseph T. Dickman, which carried Private Albert Riley of the 195th Field Ambulance Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps.
A shirt with names written on it. Out of 30 names found on the shirt, 22 were known to have survived the war.
A close-up of the shirt shows an attempt to also document some of what went on, such as an unfortunate incident involving a Pte Lewer falling into a sewer.

Zone 4: Life as a POW

The Life as a POW recalls how life would have been as a prisoner. Changi Prison is a focal point with remnants of the prison — a place of civilian internment up to May 1944 when civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp. The prison served as the POW camp after this.

The highlight of the zone is a recreation of a Changi Prison cell complete with an actual door from the since demolished old prison. The small cell, intended to hold a single prisoner, held up to four prisoners during the period of internment. The re-created cell includes speakers at various points at which historical recordings of conversations between the internees.

A Changi Prison door. A mirror placed beside the door gives the impression of a long row of cells.
A recreation of the Changi Prison cell.
Historical recordings of conversations between the internees at various points in the cell offer a glimpse into their living conditions and daily experiences.
A captors-eye view through the peephole of the prison cell door.

Zone 5: Resilience in Adversity

The Resilience in Adversity zone provides a look at the hardship that the internees faced and how they responded to it. Among the hardships recalled in this zone are the work camps that the POWs were sent away to, including those on the so-called Death Railway on the Thai-Burma border. Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident which began on 10 October 1943, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occurred after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.

The zone is probably where the most visually impactful section of the CCM also is — where the replica Changi Murals are found. The original murals, five of which were painted, were the work of Stanley Warren from September 1942 to May 1943. Warren, who was down with dysentery and renal disease and a patient in the POW hospital at Roberts Barracks, summoned what little reserves were left in his strength to paint the biblical scenes. This became a source of hope and solace for his fellow POWs. The display, which I am glad has been retained (there was some thought initially of using video projections instead) is supplemented by multimedia panels that tell their story. I was fortunate to have visited the actual murals, which are in Block 151 in the former Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West). More on my visit in 2013 and the Changi Murals can be found in “A light where there was only darkness”.

Also on display in the zone are objects fashioned by prisoners out of available materials such as toothbrushes and several other new highlights of the museum such as a Kodak Baby Brownie Camera and a 400 page diary that was maintained by civilian internee Arthur Westrop. The diary, “A Letter to My Wife”, contains entries written as if they were actual letters to his wife, who was in Rhodesia. The diary, which Westrop kept hidden under the floorboards, survived a raid on his cell during the Double Tenth Incident.

Resilience in Adversity looks at some of the hardships faced. One of the worst periods in POW life came when POWs were sent away from Changi to work camps which included the Thai-Burma or Death Railway (notice the representation of the rail tracks on the ground).
Also recalled was the Double Tenth Incident, involving the interrogation of civilian internees by the Kempeitai in Changi Prison and the likes of Elizabeth Choy in the old YMCA. The incident occured after the successful Allied commando raid behind enemy lines in the harbour known as Operation Jaywick.
Diary of Arthur Westrop 1942−1945, Gift of the family of Arthur Westrop, Collection of the National Museum of Singapore.
Toothbrushes made by prisoners.
The replica murals.
The multimedia panel.

Zone 6: Creativity in Adversity

Creativity in Adversity looks at how creative expression played a huge role in helping prisoners cope with their circumstances. Art and craft, theatrical performances, music, sports and even educational pursuits, played an important role in the process and the zone showcases some of the efforts in this area.

Among the internees were womenfolk, who found comfort in sewing quilts for the wounded. The quilts were also an ingenious method of messaging, as it allowed the women to tell their husbands that they were alive. In each personalised embroidered square, were expressions also of love patriotism, and identity.

Also found in the zone are works of art, efforts to create props for theatre, books that were used for learning including a Malay-English dictionary, and a word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey that provides an insight into a life cut short by a stint on the Death Railway. Bailey died aged 23, in 1943.

Creativity in Adversity
An exact replica of the British Changi Quilt made in2003 by the Asian Women’s Welfare Association. The original quilt is with the British Red Cross.
An interactive panel showing how a ventriloquist’s dummy was made by prisoners.
The Changi University provided education for many POWs in the early days of internment.
A Malay- English dictionary.
A message sent by a wife that tells a story of hope and love.
The word map of names of numerous places and objects, written on this piece of paper by Leading Aircraftman Ronald Bailey. This provides an insight into Bailey’s life and the places that he connect with. Bailey died in 1943 on the Death Railway aged 23.

Zone 7: Liberation

Liberation, which followed the surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945 and the subsequent British reoccupation of Singapore, brought a three and a half year chapter of captivity to an end. The zone is where the immediate aftermath and its impact on internees is looked at. Artefacts in the zone include a samurai sword presented to a POW and a letter from King George VI to POWs.

Liberation
A letter from King George VI addressed to captives.
A samurai sword presented to a POW by a Japanese officer at the end of the war.

Zone 8: Legacies

In the final zone, Legacies, the legacy of Changi as a prison camp, is remembered. Here, the names and stories of the internees call be called up on interactive screens. There is also a running count of internees and view some artefacts that were produced to remember how they had survived the internment.







A beautiful campus by the sea

20 04 2021

A peek into the beautiful BNP Paribas Asia-Pacific Campus. Established in 2014, the campus occupies two beautifully restored former barrack blocks of the former (Royal Engineers) Kitchener Barracks in Changi. The two blocks, currently Block 34 and 35 and formerly B an C Blocks, were among the first to be built in the Changi Cantonment that was developed from the end of the 1920s into the late 1930s and provide an excellent example of how such buildings could be restored and repurposed in the light of the recently announced Ideas Competition for Changi Point and old Changi Hospital (see also: Ideas sought to repurpose Old Changi Hospital, enhance surrounding Changi Point area).

The former B-Block, together with the former H-Block (now Block 24, which in 1947 was repurposed as RAF Hospital, Changi), were in fact the first barrack blocks to constructed in Changi and were completed by 1930. The cantonment also included barracks for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks — now within Changi Air Base (West) and for the infantry at Selarang Barracks, as well as smaller camps for various Indian Army units.

In the 1920s, Britain had moved to establish a large naval base in Sembawang to defend its Far East interests in the face of rising Japanese ambition. The setting up of the cantonment followed this decision and was carried out to install, maintain, man and secure coastal artillery being placed around the eastern mouth of the Tebrau or Johor Strait to protect the naval base against naval attack.

The cantonment, which sustained some damage in the lead up to the Fall of Singapore but remain largely intact, was evacuated on 12 February 1942. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and with Japanese forces overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of surrendering Allied troops in Singapore, they found a solution to accommodating some of these troops in the emptied barracks in Changi. On 17 February 1942, close to 50,000 British and Australian Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were marched to Changi and placed in the various camps. The troops forming the last line of defence in Singapore, the Singapore Fortress Southern Area troops, which included some volunteer units, were allocated Kitchener Barracks. The Australians were kept separately in Selarang. POW hospitals, which were set up in former field hospitals in Roberts and Selarang, were consolidated at Roberts Barracks — this is where the Changi Murals were painted.

The POWs would initially have little contact with their captors, who got them to wire themselves into the various camps. Discipline was maintained by the officers among the POWs, who also took it upon themselves to keep the morale up. Sports, theatrical performances and even university classes were organised — there were several professional sportsmen amongst the ranks and also lecturers from Raffles College who were with the volunteer units and in Kitchener Barracks, the Southern Area College operated. With the Fortress troops — who were not involved in the retreat down Malaya — being amongst the fittest of the POWs, the men of the camp at Kitchener were among the first to be picked for the Japanese organised work teams, many of which would be sent to provide labour in places like the Thai-Burma ‘Death’ Railway. The numbers in Kitchener dwindled to the point that it could be closed as a POW camp in May 1943, followed by Roberts in September 1943. In May 1944, the POWs, which included those who had survived the Death Railway, were concentrated at Changi Prison, which had previously been used as a civilian internment camp (the civilians were moved to Sime Road Camp).

The two camps would then be occupied by Japanese units involved in the construction of the Japanese airstrip at Changi (operational at the end of 1944), around which the Royal Air Force would establish RAF Air Station Changi (RAF Changi) in 1946. The blocks of the former Kitchener Barracks were then used by the RAF, with RAF Hospital Changi being established in 1947. Among the renumbered blocks, Block 35, housed HQ Far East Air Force (FEAF) Command. The various roads within the former Kitchener Barracks were renamed after RAF Air Stations. Following the British pull-out in October 1971, the barrack buildings (except for Block 24 and 37), were used by the Singapore Armed Forces as Commando Camp. Of the various barrack developments, only the former Kitchener remains largely intact today.





History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Colonial Changi – a virtual tour

8 11 2020

Join me on a virtual tour of Colonial Changi (including Old Changi Hospital) during Temasek Polytechnic’s Global Community Day, from 9 to 15 November 2020 (public virtual tours available on 15 November at this link).

The former RAF Hospital Changi – a point of interest on the virtual tour.

Changi, a promontory at the eastern tip of the main island of Singapore is marked in maps that date back to the early seventeenth century. It is however, its development during the colonial era that is perhaps most significant. That saw its transformation from a remote, forested and swampy corner of the island into one of Britain’s most important air bases after the second world war.

Pagar Beach

While a large portion of the area is today used by the air force as an air base, for leisure and recreation, there is much that exists that tells us the story of colonial Changi development. A wealth of information does in fact exist in structures still around such as former barrack blocks, former holiday homes, and purpose-built military residences as well as objects, sites and geographical features.

Married Soldiers’ Quarters – developed as part of Changi’s militarisation

The virtual tour will trace Changi’s development from a village and recreational retreat through the 1800s into the early 1900s into a military cantonment — that featured in the early part of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War as an Prisoner-of-War camp — and beyond that into a principal air base and the aviation hub that is well-known today.

More information can be obtained at this link.






A memory of Changi Chalet Hospital

23 09 2020

A guest post by Edmund Arozoo.

Once of Jalan Hock Chye, Edmund takes us on a walk back in time from Adelaide in South Australia, to his days as a radiographer in the small and little known Changi Chalet Hospital. The hospital, which was set up in 1974 in the former RAF Changi Chalet Club, became part of Changi Hospital in 1976.


Changi Chalet Hospital

It is surprising what you may accidentally uncover (discover) when you are searching for certain specific items, and how you then get distracted from the task at hand. Usually these surprise discoveries are memory joggers, leading you onto different tangents altogether as they remind you of certain memorable (or unpleasant) times of yesteryear.

I was going through some old photographic slides in the hope of finding slides I wanted to use for a particular project, when I came across two slides that I had forgotten about. And that was it –– my focus was disrupted as I started to reflect on these two images that have withstood the passing of time. Both slides have retained their quality in colour and detail thanks to the arid climate of Adelaide.

One of these slides brought me back to the early 1970s when I was working as a Radiographer I/C at Changi Chalet Hospital. I was also the unofficial resident photographer then and captured memories of staff etc.  The slide shows the Nursing staff getting ready for our Christmas Celebration Lunch. The Kodachrome slide processed in Australia was marked as Jan 1975. So I am sure this would be the celebrations of Christmas 1974.

Christmas Staff Party 1974.

On seeing the slide I was then diverted in trying to locate other images of Changi Chalet Hospital. Unfortunately most show the faces of staff members, as such without their permission I am reluctant to share these on the internet.  Nor am I known for posting and sharing images of me on the various social media sites with this guest post being an exception.

>In 2015, I did take a trip down memory lane to try and see what changes had taken place since I last worked at the hospital. My, what changes indeed there has been. A good friend drove me there and I was surprised that I could not get my bearings of the area that I was so familiar with, a long time ago. Trying to fit the missing links in my memory banks, I seem to have lost all my bearings.

As we drove slowly along the leafy roads, memories of the squads of SAF commandoes going through their daily exercise drills along the roads, came back to me. Most of all the tranquillity surrounding the old buildings and tall trees and the greenery was striking then and this was still there.

Fond memories of the Chalet Hospital still remain despite being more than 44 years old. It was a “mini” self-contained hospital with a pharmacy, laboratory and radiology services. Workload was not that heavy and I must confess that on a number of occasions when the tide was right I took a dip in the sea during my lunch break.

I was fortunate to be an owner of a second hand green Ford Anglia and used to drive to work from home which was near the start of Tampines Rd and the journey took me to the end of the road then veering left at the junction of the old Changi Air Force Airport into Upper Changi Road. Then after passing the old Changi Village turn left again on to Netheravon Road then into Turnhouse Road.

It was a long drive but almost halfway I used to pick up the Junior Photographic Assistant (my Darkroom Technician) who lived along Tampines Road on the way to work in the mornings and drop him off after work, so I had company for most of the journey to and fro. It was also a long walk from the bus terminus at the Changi Village to the Hospital, so me and other staff who had cars used  to pick up other hospital staff who were seen walking to work from the bus stop. It did foster a “family” atmosphere and environment.

As I started this blog thanks to the Onemap Singapore website https://hm.onemap.sg/ I was able to take a walk or rather a “drive” down memory lane. The old maps help put pieces together.

My daily commute from home to work and back (Map from the 1975 Map collection of old maps from the OneMap Singapore website).

There were still sand quarries along Tampines Road then and often you would share the narrow road with lorries carting sand. The spillage from the load of these lorries often presented a road hazard especially after a light shower. The mixture of sand and water was a recipe for skidding. Imprinted in my mind is the sight of the lorry I was trailing do a 360 degree spin. Thankfully I had kept my distance from it and was able to ease off without my car going into a spin too.

Another memory along the route was the turnoff to Kampong Loyang. In my early school days the whole family clan used to spend a week of the August School holidays in a holiday kampong shack in Kampong Loyang. Passing this turnoff always reminded me of those carefree days.

1975 Map showing Kampong Loyang turn off from the OneMap Singapore website.

Part of my duties was to provide x-ray services for the newly established Changi Prison Hospital. So with my JPA I used to drive to the prison on allocated days when x-rays of inmates were requested. The workload was not heavy but the challenges were very different to that of a hospital based X-ray Department. One of the benefits however was the ability to access some of the services of the Prison Industries that were organised to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates by teaching them skills they could utilise on their release and be employable. I remember getting my computer notes and books hardbound for a small sum. And these lasted me for the duration of the Computer studies I was undertaking then and beyond. The hard cover binding was of a professional level.

But the proximity of Changi Village shops was a bonus for us Hospital staff with cars. It was place we frequented for lunch and the occasional shopping.  I was just starting into serious photography then and the friendly Photographic shop owner became a great friend. I cannot remember the name of the shop but if my memory serves me well I think his name was Mr Lim. He was a great salesperson and very knowledgeable.  I still having gear bought from those days more than 40 years ago. Those were “film” camera days but most of these are still useable though some lenses do need adapters to be used with today’s digital cameras.

Changi Village – map from the OneMap Singapore website.

Recollection of the old Changi Village Shops.

Another memory that resurfaced was the change of plans of upgrading The International Airport at Paya Lebar to the establishment of the current Changi Airport.  Driving along Tampines Road we did skirt around the perimeter of the existing Paya Lebar Airport and I do remember seeing the row of terrace houses that were acquired to make way for the initial plan to extend the Airport. These were left vacant after the plans were changed. Likewise there was another beachside newly built hotel along Nicoll Drive, Tanah Merah that was never opened because of the switch to Changi. Most of the hospital staff were looking forward to having a meal at the new premises. This never eventuated. More recently after trying to research the name of the hotel and without coming up with any answers I was beginning to doubt my memory, and wondered if it was a figment of my imagination. However during a recent viewing of this Youtube video https://youtu.be/r26M_Lryu6Y, there was a brief mention of the razing of the hotel. It was great to receive this confirmation indeed.

Changi Chalet Hospital

Main Entrance to Hospital.

? Same Tree – 45 years later.

Panorama of the old “Padang” Sports Field.

Chalet Building erased – sigh………

Fond Memories.

Belonging to the various nostalgia-themed facebook groups has been great for me. There members share photos and experiences of places now mostly all gone. One group I am glad to be part of is the “Memories of Changi Village” group. A “wave” is sent to Ms Geraldine Soh, the administrator. Like the present Changi Airport this fb group platform is the crossroads where members from all corners of the world come together to share their precious memories and photos keeping our own flickering memories of Changi alive.






Parting glances: the Siglap flats

25 05 2020

A final look at the set of four Housing and Development Board (HDB) built blocks of flats that have long been a curious sight at the junction of Upper East Coast Road and Siglap Road. Each five-storeys tall, the blocks were completed in early 1964 to rehouse families  displaced by a fire that had destroyed wooden dwellings on the same site during Chinese New Year in February 1962. More than 450 people from 82 families were rendered homeless by the fire. The four blocks, which contained some 119 units and 10 shop units when built, will be demolished under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) and were vacated some time in 2015.


How the blocks looked originally


 





Discovering Old Changi Hospital (2019)

1 07 2019

Update : Registration has closed as of 7.06 pm 1 July 2019. As pre-registration is required, no walk-ins will be permitted. 

More on the series: Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets


The disused buildings of the former Changi Hospital have, since the hospital’s colsure in 1997, been the subject of persistent rumours that stem from a misunderstanding of the buildings’ wartime history.

The hospital, which began its life as RAF Hospital, Changi, was among the most highly regarded in the RAF medical service. It boasted of some of the best facilities, and the environment it provided was ideally suited to rest and recuperation. Occupying buildings of the Changi garrison that were perhaps the least troubled by the occurences in Changi from Feb 1942 and Aug 1945, it was only in 1947 that the hospital was set up. Two Royal Engineers’ Kitchener Barracks buildings built in the 1930s were turned into the hospital to serve RAF Changi after the air station was established (in 1946). A third block, which became the main ward block, was added in the early 1960s.

Suported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), the visit provides an opportunity to learn more about the former hopsital and its misunderstood past. It will also offer participants a rare opportunity to take a guided walk through parts of the property.

When 
13 July 2019

How to register

Do note that spaces are limited. As this is a repeat visit, kindly register only if you have not previously participated.

Participants must be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration is required for each participant – duplicate registrations in the same name will count as one.

Registration shall be made using the form at this link (closed as of 7.06 pm 1 July 2019).

A confirmation will be sent to the email address used in registration one week prior to the visit with admin instructions to all successful registrants. Please ensure that the address entered on the form is correct.






(Re)Discovering Old Changi Hospital

14 09 2018

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up

Look out for next visit in the series to the Garrison Churches of Tanglin on 3 Nov 2018.


Pre-registration is necessary – no walk-ins will be permitted. As a condition for the visit, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) requires a unique registration (with a unique name and particulars) for each participant, who should be of age 18 and above.


“Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” makes a return to Old Changi Hospital on 29 September 2018 (9.30 to 11 am). The visit, aimed at those who missed the one last year, will provide participants with a rare opportunity to take a peek inside the former hospital and also learn about its much misunderstood past (sorry to disappoint you, but contrary to popular belief. nothing really much happened here during the Japanese Occupation – the hospital, when the Changi Garrison was used as an extended POW camp was set up at Roberts Barracks).

The former hospital, well regarded by RAF personnel and their families, traces its history back to 1947 when the RAF set it up in the newly established Air Station, RAF Changi. Two blocks built in the 1930s for the Royal Engineers’ Kitchener Barracks, were used. A new building was added in the 1960s. One of the things that the hospital was then well known for was its very busy maternity section.

The pull-out of the British forces in late 1971, saw it come under the command of the ANZUK Forces as the ANZUK Military Hospital. It briefly became the UK Military Hospital in 1975 with the withdrawal of the Australian ANZUK contingent. The Singapore Armed Forces then ran the hospital in 1975/76 before it was handed over to the Ministry of Health. It was operated as Changi Hospital from 1 July 1976 until it closed in January 1997.


Visit details
(All spaces have been taken up and registration is closed)


More on its history : A wander through old Changi Hospital

Photographs from last year’s visit: A visit to Old Changi Hospital


“Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” guided State Property visits are organised by Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road, with the support of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

More on the series:






The machine gun pillbox café at Changi Beach

10 11 2017

How I miss my outings as a child to Changi Beach. High tides occurring on a Sunday morning often meant a trip to the beach for a dip. Trips to Changi Beach, which meant a long but scenic drive in days when the word “expressway” did not feature on a Singaporean driver’s vocabulary, were always looked to with much excitement and were not without preparation.

Changi Beach, 1965

A day at  Changi Beach, 1965.

Mum would often prepare a delicious tiffin. Mee goreng or chicken curry served with local versions of the French baguette were my favourites. Dad would ask to have his thermos filled with kopi-o from the nearby kopitiam. Straw hats and mats, tiny pails and spades for sand play, inflatable floats, my grandma, my sis and me could then be packed into the trusty Austin 1100 for the drive – part of which featured the seemingly never-ending and still very rural Tampines Road.

Picnics out of the Car Boot, Changi Beach, late 1960s.

Changi Beach had then a very different feel. It was uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar. Ketapang (sea-almond), acacia, sea apple, coconut, and casuarina trees lined the beach and its popular stretches were lined with sampans for hire, and within sight of that, inner truck tire tubes for use as floats and deck chairs were displayed – also for hire.

Under an acacia tree, Changi Beach, early 1970s.

Sampans for hire (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

One of the things also associated with the beach that I was recently reminded of from a posting of photographs by Mrs Lies Strijker-Klaij, were the beach-side cafes. Housed in wooden shacks – much like those now found in some beaches in the region – they served the delicious Malay fare and were popular with the beach crowd as were the mobile food vendors who made an appearance. The fish and chips van was a regular, as were several bell-ringing ice-cream vendors and the Indian men balancing delicious a tray of vadai or a rack of kacang putih.

The vadai vendor with a tray balanced on his head. The wooden base opened up as a folding support (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

A vadai vendor and a beach-side café similar to the ones I remember at Changi Beach in the background (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

Thinking about all that also reminds me of the machine gun pillboxes that lined the beach in my earlier years. Built to fend off would be invaders, they decorated the southward facing coastline. Many were filled with rotting matter and stank to high-heaven. There was also a pillbox along the beach that was a café operated out of. I don’t quite remember it but I recall my parents making reference to it as “chipot”. I never quite figured its name out, that is until quite recently. My dad explained that it was a name parents used for the want of a better name,  derived from how the Chinese lady who ran the café would repeated an order for a pot of tea, “chi pot” – a combination of the colloquial Hokkien word for one and the English pot!

A Pillbox at Changi Beach.

A similar pillbox at Mata Ikan in the 1970s.





The real story behind Old Changi Hospital

11 09 2017

The real story behind Old Changi Hospital, isn’t about what the place seems to have got an unfortunate reputation more recently for.  The former hospital, which has its roots in the RAF Hospital set up after the war in 1947, is a place that many who were warded or who worked there remember with fondness.

The hospital, with a reputation of being one of the best military medical facilities in the Far East, is also well remembered for the wonderful views its wards provided of the sea and that it was felt aided in rest and recovery.

Members of the public got to learn about the background to the hospital and how some of the basis for the more recently circulated myths are quite clearly false during a visit to the site as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits organised with the support of the Singapore Land Authority. More on the visit and the series can also be found at the links below.

More on the visit:

More on Old Changi Hospital / Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets:

Also of interest:





Registration for Old Changi Hospital Visit (2nd Run)

26 08 2017

Update
26 August 2017 1.15 pm

Registration for the 2nd run of the event has been closed as of 1312 hours, 26 August 2017. All slots have been taken up.

Do look out for the next visit in the series, which will be to Old Admiralty House being scheduled for 16 September 2017 at 9 am to 11 am (rescheduled due to Presidential election on 23 September). More details will be out two weeks before the visit.


Due to popular demand, a second run of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Old Changi Hospital will be held on 9 September 2017.

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up. An email will be sent to registered participants with admin instructions a week prior to the visit.





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: Visit to Old Changi Hospital

25 08 2017

Update
26 August 2017 8.20 am

A 2nd tour has been added at 1pm on 9 September 2017.

Details on registration will be posted at 1 pm today.


Update
25 August 2017 9.07 am

Registration for the event has been closed as of 0835 hours, 25 August 2017. All slots have been taken up. Do look out for the next visit in the series, which will be to Old Admiralty House being scheduled for 16 September 2017 at 9 am to 11 am (rescheduled due to Presidential election on 23 September). More details will be out two weeks before the visit.


The fourth in the series of State Property visits that is being supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) will present participants with a rare opportunity to visit the former Changi Hospital.

For this visit, participants will have to be 18 years old and above.

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up. An email will be sent to registered participants with admin instructions a week prior to the visit.


Old Changi Hospital

The hospital traces its origins to the Royal Air Force(RAF) Hospital Changi. That was set up in 1947 to serve the then newly established RAF Station, Singapore’s third. The hospital operated out of two Barrack Hill buildings, one of which was actually designated for use as a medical centre in the context of the military camps of today. The buildings were built as part of the Changi garrison’s 1930s vintage Kitchener Barracks, which housed the Royal Engineers. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, it took quite an effort to move from one wing to the other.

Despite its less than ideal layout, the hospital gained a reputation of being one of the best medical facilities in the Far East. It was well liked by those who were warded there with its proximity to the sea. The hospital also played an important role during the Korean War. A ward was set up for use as a stopover for the “Flying Ambulance” service the RAF mounted. The service allowed wounded UN Command troops to be repatriated to their home countries via Singapore and London.

The hospital was also an important maternity hospital that served families with all arms of the military (not just the RAF) who were stationed in Singapore and counted more than 1000 new arrivals during its time as the RAF Hospital. An expansion exercise in 1962 gave the hospital a third block.

RAF Hospital Changi became the ANZUK Military Hospital following the 1971 pullout of British forces, then the UK Military Hospital, the SAF Hospital, and finally Changi Hospital. It closed in 1997 and the buildings have been left empty since. I will be sharing more on the hospital, its buildings and the history of the Changi garrison during the visit.






Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.





Ancient music in Jackie Chan’s ancient houses

20 10 2016

A most delightful gift to Singapore made by Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan is the set of four structures that now grace the campus of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) at Somapah. Dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, the structures were originally from Zhejiang province in China. A chance to have a look at them came with a Nanyin performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in the structures that I was invited to recently.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Part of a collection of ten ancient structures purchased by martial arts star with the intention that they be dismantled and re-erected as a home for his parents, the structures were put in storage for much longer than was intended. Little was documented on the assembly of the structures, which proved a challenge when the university looked at reassembling them.

The pavilion.

The pavilion.

The structures feature some rather interesting and previously unseen features in Singapore in which many Chinese structures are of the Minnan style. An examples of this is the exquisitely carved oversized wooden corbels seen in one of the structures, a late Qing dynasty pavilion. The pavilion, interestingly, also features a mix of styles seen in the wooden balustrades with a Suzhou flavour.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

Close to the pavilion, another of the structures – an opera stage, has an interesting feature on its ceiling – a dome of sorts that acts to enhance the stage acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage's acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage’s acoustics.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

A close-up.

A close-up.

There are also two structures, complementing parts of a Ming dynasty house and a Qing dynasty house, that have been put together in the setting of a lake. Featuring a mix of old and new in the glass panels that keep the air-conditioning in, the parts which have only a small difference in width, find harmony even if they were from different houses and from different times. The parts are a main hall and an inner hall where bedrooms would have been located. An interesting contrast between the two are the finished wooden columns seen in the main hall where guests would be entertained and the coarser looking (and less costly) unfinished columns in the inner more private area.

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In the inner hall.

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The two parts of two houses, complementing each other in the setting of a lake.

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The opera stage by night.

A carved corbel on the stage.

A carved corbel on the stage.

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Fishy business at Changi Creek

29 09 2016

One of few places in Singapore that has still a hint of the old world, even in its modernised form, is Changi Village. While it bears little resemblance now to the sleepy village that once provided a perfect setting of a lazy afternoon stroll, there still are spots in and around it that take you back to its magical days.

The wharf at Changi Creek where fish from fish farms off the northeastern shore are brought ashore.

The wharf at Changi Creek where fish from fish farms off the northeastern shore are brought ashore.

One part of the village that has been spared from being overly manicured and also from the madding nasi-lemak seeking crowds that descend on the village especially during the weekends crowds, is the area around the creek. Here, one finds a world with much soul in it, coloured by the gathering of slow boats used in the transport of people to and from Singapore’s last inhabited island.  This, plus the activities associated with the delivery each morning of live fish from fish farms off Singapore’s northeastern coast from boats to lorries bound for Singapore’s many seafood restaurants, provides the creek with a character that is lacking in much of the rest of the island.

An early morning scene by the wharf.

An early morning scene by the wharf.

It is for these sights that I would often find myself enjoying a stroll by the creek. Observing what goes on at delivery time at the wharf, which is marked by a gathering of styrofoam box topped small lorries wharf side and sees the hoisting by hand of live seafood in nets from the boats, brings as much joy to me as taking in what went on along a once even more colourful Singapore River that I enjoyed as a child.

The colours that the gathering of slow boats to Pulau Ubin bring to the area, as seen from the area where the fish farmers' wharf is.

The colours that the gathering of slow boats to Pulau Ubin bring to the area, as seen from the area where the fish farmers’ wharf is.

The same area seen in 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Sadly, time, it seems, is being called on the wharf and the joy it brings people like me. An article in yesterday’s Straits Times speaks of the prospect of its closure in an effort to curb smuggling. A recent case of cigarette smuggling had apparently been traced to the wharf and in a move typical of the agencies these days, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) is looking to have it shut over concerns “national security and safety” and are said to be in discussions with fish farmers on this. The fish farmers, who would be most affected, and would have to offload their time sensitive cargo further away at Lorong Halus or Senoko.

Small lorries gather in the mornings in anticipation of live seafood deliveries brought in from the fish farms.

Small lorries topped with styrofoam boxes gather in the mornings in anticipation of live seafood deliveries brought in from the fish farms.

The wharf - as seen from the ferry terminal.

The wharf – as seen from the ferry terminal.

Live fish are transferred to nets ...

Live fish are transferred to nets …

... which are then 'hoisted' up by hand ...

… which are then ‘hoisted’ up by hand …

... and loaded to lorries bound for seafood restaurants ...

… and loaded to lorries bound for seafood restaurants …

A styrofoam box topped delivery truck.

A styrofoam box topped delivery truck at the wharf.

 

 





A wander through old Changi Hospital

17 10 2015

Changi is an area of Singapore still riddled with many reminders of its past. The site of an artillery battery and an army garrison before the war, Changi was also where tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war were held during the dark days of occupation. The end of the war brought the Royal Air Force (RAF) to Changi with the establishment of the RAF Changi. Changi then served as the Headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) and its predecessor until the pull-out of British forces in 1971.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

A corridor into the past - a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

A corridor into the past – a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

Several reminders of these episodes in Changi’s history can still be seen today. Buildings from the various barracks from the 1930s and the remnants of the Johore Battery tell us of its garrison days. The air base is still around and although this is hidden from the public eye, a part of the former RAF Changi isn’t, including a cluster of buildings which served as the RAF Hospital Changi. With the permission of the Singapore Land Authority, I managed to wander through the old corridors of the old hospital, which despite what has, in more recent times, been said about it, isn’t what it is made out to be.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The operating theatre area.

The operating theatre area.

Perched on the northern slope of the former FEAF Hill overlooking the eastern Johor Strait and surrounded by a sea of greenery, the site of the hospital does seem as ideal as any as a one given to the care and recovery of the infirmed. Standing somewhat forlornly since they were vacated in 1997, the three buildings of the former hospital, now painted by many in a somewhat negative light, a sad reminder of the hospital that was very well thought of by many of its would be patients.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

A view towards the Johor Strait from the roof of Block 161.

A view towards the Johor Strait, Pasir Ris and Punggol from the roof of Block 161.

The hospital’s origins lie with the establishment of the RAF’s Changi Station, or RAF Changi. The construction of an airfield by the Japanese in 1943 in the former army cantonment with the help of labour provided by prisoners-of-war (POW) had unlocked the potential of an area initially deemed unsuitable for an air base. The returning British wasted no time and with help from Japanese POWs built on the initial effort and had Singapore’s third principal RAF station set-up around it in 1946.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943.

RAF Hospital Changi during its time had a reputation of being modern and well equipped. The large maternity ward it boasted of was an indication of the presence of many young military families stationed in Singapore, not just with the RAF, but also in the other armed services. By the time the RAF vacated Changi and the hospital in 1971, the ward was responsible for more than a thousand new arrivals.

What would have been a women's ward in Block 161.

What would have been a women’s ward in Block 161.

Another view of the ward.

Another view of the ward.

The hospital’s own arrival came with its setting up in two former barrack buildings. The buildings on Barrack Hill (later FEAF Hill), Blocks 24 and 37, had originally been a part of the pre-war Kitchener Barracks (Block 37 may originally have been a medical facility serving Kitchener Barracks).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickr).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickrlicense).

Blocks 161 and 24.

Blocks 161 and 24.

The third building we see today, Block 161, was added in 1962. It was constructed to allow the expansion of the hospital after an attempt to consruct a new hospital at Selarang ran into difficulty and was abanadoned. The new building also provided a link over the steep incline that separated the hospital’s original blocks.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A passageway along Block 24.

A passageway on the top level of Block 24.

Named after Lord Kitchener, an officer in with the Royal Engineers who perished in service during World War I, Kitchener Barracks was home to the Royal Engineers and was one of four barracks that made up the army garrison. The hospital’s original buildings, the three storey Block 24 in particular, bear resemblance to many other barrack blocks that were built in the same era found across Singapore.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

The are suggestions that the hospital may have been established before the war, in 1935, around the time the barrack buildings were constructed. This however does not seem to have been likely. The evidence points to RAF Hospital Changi’s being established around 1947 based on records and also mentions of the hospital in newpaper articles.

Another ward in Block 161.

Another ward in Block 161.

Sanitary facilities.

Sanitary facilities.

No mention is also made of the hospital in late 1930s articles reporting to the intention to set up and the opening of the British Military Hospital at Alexandra. These point only to a Military Hospital at Tanglin as having been the only functioning hospital within the British military establishment in Singapore. The first reference to an RAF Hospital was in 1946 when that was set up temporarily in part of the mental hospital at Seletar (what became Woodbridge Hospital).

The bathroom inside the women's ward.

The bathroom inside the women’s ward.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

One of the notable contributions of the hospital was the role it played in responding to medical emergencies hundred of miles offshore. The participation of the hospital extended to the deployment of “flying” surgeons and other medical personnel, one of whom was S/Ldr Agnes Bartels – who had the distinction of being the RAF’s only woman surgeon stationed in the Far East.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

On the ground level of Block 24.

On the ground level of Block 24.

The hospital would also called into service during the Korean War. A “Flying Ambulance” service, which was organised by the RAF to repatriate wounded UN Command troops from Japan via the UK to their home countries, used Singapore as a stopover. A ward specially set up at RAF Hospital Changi, allowed the wounded to be cared for whilst in transit. During the period, the hospital saw troops from several countries, which included the likes of Turkey and France.

Rooms in Block 24.

What seems to be a kitchen in Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The end for RAF Hospital Changi came in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out, at which point it was one of the three military run hospitals on the island. While the other two, the British Military Hospital (now Alexandra Hospital) and the Naval Base Hospital, were handed over to Singapore, Changi was retained for use as a military hospital to serve the smaller force being deployed under the ANZUK arrangement. On 1 October 1971, the then 150 bed hospital became the ANZUK Military Hospital.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A view towards Block 24.

A view from Block 161 towards Block 24.

The withdrawal of Australia from the ANZUK arrangement (which saw a pullout in 1975), placed the hospital once again under the command of the UK military. It was then renamed the UK Military Hospital for a short while before it was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on 1 December 1975 when it became the SAF Hospital.

A WC in Block 24.

A WC in Block 24.

The roof structure of Block 161.

The roof structure of Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Intended to serve SAF personnel and their families, the hospital was also to open its doors to the public. This was in early 1976, prior to it being transferred to the Ministry of Health who merged it with the nearby 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital and it became Changi Hospital on 1 July 1976.

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi's Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi’s Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

The decision to set up the 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital, which was opened in the converted former Chalet Club (between Turnhouse Road and Netheravon Road) in August 1974, only for it to be absorbed into Changi Hospital less than two years later seems rather strange. Opened with the intention to serve “residents in the area”, rumour has it that the well equipped hospital, was set up to serve a certain group of holiday makers in what had been a well protected area.

A view from the old Sergeants Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

A view from the old Sergeants’ Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

The death knell for Changi Hospital was sounded when it was announced in 1988 that a new site was being sought for a new Changi Hospital, which was “poorly located and not designed orginally to operate as a high activity acute hospital”. That was eventually found in Simei and the new Changi Hospital, which merged the operations of the old Changi Hospital, which closed in January 1997, with that of the former Toa Payoh Hospital, was opened in February 1997.

More views of Block 24.

More views of Block 24.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

A corridor at Block 37.

A corridor at Block 37.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The eventual fate of the buildings is not known. A tender exercise conducted in 2006 saw the award of site for interime use on a lease period of three years (extendable to an additional three plus three years) to Premium Pacific Pte Ltd. The intention to convert it into a Spa & Resort Development by 2008 however did not materialise and the property was returned in early 2010. Further attempts to find interim uses for the site have proved unsuccessful and the buildings have, since the hospital’s move, been sadly been left unused.

An artist’s impression of the proposed spa resort (it would be Block 37 depicted).

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.





The monster guns of the east

10 07 2015

Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Changi is a reminder of one of three monster guns of the east installed as part of the coastal defences to protect the island’s naval base from an attack by sea. The reminder, the No. 1 gun emplacement of the Johore Battery and its underground network of support structures, topped by a replica of the 15 inch gun that once stood proudly over it, is in an area today dominated by the high fences of the area’s prison complexes that make it seem an unlikely site for a coastal defence gun.

A photograph of one of the monster guns from the Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758) (Captioned as: A 15-inch coast defence gun at Singapore, November 1941).

A photograph of one of the monster guns seen in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758)].

The terrain and its surroundings would of course have been very different in the days when the guns were installed. The considerations for locating them in the area go back to the 1920s, when the British were in the midst of planning on turning Changi into a military base. How it came to be chosen is already well documented by Peter Stubbs on his Fort Siloso website (see: Johore 15-inch Battery) in which there is a wealth of information also on the battery and other coastal defence sites across Singapore.

The replica gun at the site today.

The replica gun at the site today.

Named in honour of the then Sultan of Johor who had donated a substantial sum of money (in the order of £500,000) – much of which was used to set up the battery, the Johore Battery was one of several batteries of the Changi Fire Command, established to protect the entrance to the Tebrau Strait and the Naval Base. These also included 6 and 9,2 inch guns that were set up around the eastern tip of Singapore in an area that extended to Pulau Tekong and Pengerang in southeastern Johor. The 15-inch guns, installed in 1938, had a range of 21 miles.

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Besides the Changi Fire Command, the coastal defences also included a Faber Fire Command to protect the port and the city of Singapore and a total of 29 large gun batteries were distributed between the two commands. The Faber Fire Command also included a Buona Vista Battery with two 15-inch guns.

The labyrinth above ground.

The labyrinth above ground.

Much has been discussed on the effectiveness of the guns in the days that led up to the Fall of Singapore. It could be suggested that the coastal defences did served their intended purpose in deterring an attack by the sea. What is quite certain however, was that although the flat trajectory of the guns and their ammunition made them unsuitable for use over land, two working guns of the Johore Battery were trained to the north and west and fired a total of Johore Battery (Infopedia) in the defence of the island. An account of one of the gun’s use is found in a paper “The Story of the end of Johore Battery during the Battle for Singapore” based on interviews with Malcolm Nash, the son of Gunner William Nash:

Once the Japanese had commenced their attack my father stated that his gun was turned around so that it could fire to the north. I believe that he said that turning it round took 12 hours. My father was the gunner responsible for firing the gun and thought the firing to have been merely a morale booster to frontline troops, as the shells available had been designed to pierce ships’ armour. During his time at Changi Prison he said that fellow soldiers had commented that the shells had sounded like a train going overhead when they were fired.

After eighty shells had been fired it was noticed that the rifling had started to protrude from the barrel and a member of the Royal Engineers was consulted. His view was that the gun was no longer fit for action and if fired again would not have his named attached to it. The gun was fired once more which caused its destruction, and the oil tanks around my father to explode and bathe him in oil.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

The same paper describes an account of a Japanese Colonel, who recounts the guns’ armour piercing shells producing craters 15-16 metres in diameter and 5-6 metres deep and that the guns most intense phase came during 10-12 February 1942 when they were used to shell the centre and west of the Singapore. The guns were said to have been destroyed on the night of 12 February 1942. Following the end of the war, the remains of the 300 ton guns (the barrel alone was thought to have weighed 100 tons) were sold for scrap.

A soldier loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Besides the emplacements, a labyrinth of underground structures – a trace of which can now be seen above ground, were also built in an around the guns, in part to allow ammunition to be fed to the guns – the shells were loaded to the guns using a hydraulic lift. It was these tunnels and the emplacement of the No. 1 gun of the Johore Battery that was rediscovered in April 1991 in an area that became the Prisons’ Abington Centre and was then turned into the Johore Battery historic site and unveiled on 15 Fenruary 2002.  The underground structures are currently unsafe and access to them is not possible.





The long road to Somapah

26 06 2015

Excerpts of an interview with Mr Lim Jiak Kin:

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, I had a relative who lived in Mata Ikan. This was close to Somapah Village where my mother’s best friend lived. Her second son was my second brother’s god-brother.

The approach to Somapah and Mata Ikan was via Somapah Road, lined on the left and right with rows of shophouses. I remember a tailor, as well as a corner shop where my mother’s best friend ran a permanent wave salon. The salon was air-conditioned – a big deal in those days and it was where we always stopped on the way to Mata Ikan.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

I also remember that there were shophouses opposite the permanent wave shop, in front of which were some very good food stalls. One hawker sold fish porridge and another sold fried oysters. The stalls were relocated to Changi Village when Somapah was resettled. Right next to the permanent wave salon was an open-air cinema.

Somapah Road, at its junction with Jalan Somapah Timor (National Archives online catalogue).

By the side of the cinema there was a little slope where a number of stalls had been set up. This was where the morning market was held and where freshly cooked food and fish were sold. The fish would probably have been brought in from the sea at Mata Ikan, one or two kilometres away. Driving past the market, you would come to a child and maternal clinic. Farther in there were holiday bungalows, corporate as well as private ones.

Mata Ikan 1973

A playground at the Government holiday bungalows at Mata Ikan.

After stopping by the salon, we would head to the end of Somapah Road. That was where we would find the last house by the sea, a house of wood and attap typical of a Malaysian beach hut, standing under a coconut tree.

That was our main destination, a provision shop run by a good friend of my father’s. He was a relative of sorts, having originated from the same ancestral village in Hainan as my father. This man and his Teochew wife lived at the back of the house and kept chickens, reserving the best of them and also their eggs for my father for the Chinese New Year.

Across the path from the provision shop was a small shed. That was where my father’s friend turned crushed cockle shells into a ‘dough-like’ kapor to be sold as whitewash. Packed into wooden crates measuring one foot by one foot and two to three feet high, the kapor would be put on sale in paint shops. Competition from low-end, but superior-quality paints introduced by established paint-makers, had seen the trade gradually dying out.

I remember that the population of the Somapah area was mainly Chinese. Among the various dialect groups was a large Hainanese community and I can recall the Hainanese-run Kwang Boo Kok Suat Thuan. The head of the association was one of the founders of the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant that used to operate in the now long-gone Bedok Rest House.

Kwang Boo Kok Suat Tuan on the Changi 10 Mile Facebook Page.

I have many fond memories of my trips to Somapah and Mata Ikan. It was an outing that to a young boy, seemed almost like an overseas trip. Not many people had the opportunity to travel to the beach by car in those days. We would head there in an Austin A40 with the registration plate SC 644 that my mother would drive. There would be five of us; my parents, my two brothers and me, and we would take the drive on Sundays when my father was free.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline.

Somapah Village, in the National Archives online catalogue.

The drive was a long but scenic one. It seemed a long journey even in later years when made on board a lorry that left from the Capitol Cinema, near where the Bata shop was. Sitting on a plank in the back of the lorry about an hour into the journey, I would always look out for the “阿弥陀佛” (a mi tuo fo) temple opposite the Bedok Army Camp, as a sign that we were nearing our destination, the site of the picnic we were attending.

As a city dweller living in a two-storey shophouse with only the very dangerous Odeon car park to run about in, I felt like a caged dog being let loose when we went to the beach. It always meant getting my feet wet, picking up shells and sitting under coconut trees – a real treat that to this day I can still picture in my dreams.


More memories of Somapah Village and Mata Ikan

The site of Somapah Village is now occupied by the campus of the recently erected Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The heart of the village stood at the meeting of Somapah Road, which has since been realigned, and Upper Changi Road.  Mata Ikan, was a holiday destination for many in days when it was the fashion to take vacations by the sea. Its site would be close to where Changi South Ave 3 is today.

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline ...

Approximate locations of some of the missing villages of the Changi / Somapah area.